Friday, 20 October 2023
It’s a theatre which has seen a lot of history – David Bowie, The Yardbirds – and even saw concerts early in its history after its opening in 1864.
Thirteen hundred people came to see Rival Sons, including the two representatives of the magazine, from Norway. It seemed full, lively, bustling, as it might have done once when it matched its name, as an exchange hall.
This night, what was to change hands was something else, something significant, if not historic in the grandest sense. Jay Buchanan and Scott Holiday had announced it beforehand on social media, but I don’t suppose that everyone had heard the news. It was release day for «Lightbringer», the sister record to «Darkfighter», the second album following the first by only four months, and the band announced that they would play the album in its entirety. Norway Rock Magazine has written elsewhere about the quality of this record. It was time to hear the whole piece, to hear how all the songs played live.
The band exploded onto the stage with «Mirrors» from «Darkfighter» and the pace and intensity of the delivery set the tone for the whole show. Jay Buchanan started as he meant to go on, pushing his voice, not to breaking point but to the edge of its emotional range. It was like he had inhaled Storm Babet and was using it as fuel. Perhaps it was a way of dispelling any nerves they felt concerning what was to come in the second half of the concert. «Do Your Worst» was next, continuing the forceful delivery of the music. That got the audience involved early too. Even «Bird in the Hand», which is a gentler piece on the «Darkfighter» record, had a bit more of a swing, a bit more punch. We’re only three songs in, and the band are in fine form vocally, showing the strong ensemble vocals which are a hallmark of their live performance. «Open My Eyes» took us back to the atmosphere of the start of the show, with a heavy drum intro and Scott Holiday’s thickly overdriven riff filling the space.
Presumably because of the format of the show, Michael Miley’s drum solo came fifth. This is always fun because of the combination of the man’s charisma and skill, but he took it further this time, getting the audience to clap out a rhythm and then playing against it in syncopation. This was the other dimension to the band’s performance this evening – they all reached further. Rival Sons are always consummate performers of their music, keeping things true to the recordings, but it is always an experience, always full of the energy you want from live music. This evening, though, there was more. All through the set, the band added, elaborated, enriched. Buchanan often varies his vocal lines, but it seemed to the undersigned that he did it more this evening than usual. Holiday embellished the guitar lines and fills on a number of tracks, and Dave Beste, the unflappable foundation of the band, improvised around the regular bass parts where the music gave him space to do so. Daring? Not exactly, but certainly confident, certainly aware of the moment. This was a band not just in full cry but also fully self-possessed, a remarkable thing when they were facing playing their latest record from start to finish, not knowing how it would be received.
Before we hear that story, before we enjoy that moment of transmission, we should acknowledge a beautiful moment where Buchanan took the stage on his own to play «Shooting Stars». He started to speak, to dedicate the song, but broke down and had to recover his nerve before dedicating it to the people – especially the children – suffering in Israel and Gaza «Defenseless – easy targets… my heart aches for them…. this song is for them». His words drew some applause and a few shouts of appreciation, and when he began to sing, half the audience joined in at once.
This was the only lull in the performance’s pace, though not the intensity of the atmosphere. «Nobody Wants to Die» brought back the physicality of the show, Buchanan pacing up and down the stage as much as before, Holiday’s guitar dripping with menace. «Darkside» served as an introduction to what we were waiting for, as the playing of the bridge between the two records. Buchanan stood stock still with his guitar through the whole piece, his near strained posture giving the piece more gravitas, more sadness. The piece concluded with an explosion of sound from the whole band – another superb ensemble performance – and they left the stage.
Minutes later, the lights came up and they returned for «Darkfighter» from «Lightbringer», without introduction. The elusive, chromatic, Shostakovichian motif rang out over the audience, who fell strangely silent (apart from a crowd of idiots by the main doors who barely shut up through the whole show – det er jo ikke et problem for Oslo alene), and then we drifted into nine minutes of shifting light and shade, subtle and soaring vocals by turns, and some dedicate dynamics from the whole band. Buchanan’s voice was outstanding, full of yearning, stretching up into the higher parts of his range. When the piece finished, there was a breathless silence in the room. Even the idiots by the doors had finally shut up. Then a massive round of applause erupted from the audience. They clearly knew they had witnessed something special – a very strong first performance of a fascinating, beguiling, progressive, adventurous piece, easily the most sophisticated piece of writing the band has ever put out.
There was a pause and Buchanan spoke a little about the birth of the album and admitted that it was a relief to finally have the record out. They would have to wait for five more songs to really get a complete sense of relief, though they have played half the album live in recent shows.
«Mercy» took Buchanan’s voice into a harsher place, and not I think from tiredness or overexertion, but something he wanted to convey with his voice. The «Lightbringer» record has an emotional force behind it. There are no «nice to have» tracks on it, and each song has a distinct emotional character. It seemed it was that tone which was spurring Buchanan on. «Redemption», which was otherwise a fairly straight, faithful rendition of the album version, still had Buchanan leaning on his voice, pushing it to the very top of his range. It seemed like he had to rest a little on «Sweet Life» which followed, with Dave Beste’s backing vocals carrying more of the weight in the chorus, but this was an illusion from the ensemble vocals. When the music broke down in the middle 8, Buchanan’s voice was high, clear, strong.
«Before the Fire» was, for the undersigned, the most anticipated track. Much as «DARKFIGHTER» is a work of art, this song has strength in its simpler changes of arrangement, its pace, and its clever lyrics. There was no disappointment. The song was full of angst and immediacy, perfectly delivered. And suddenly we are at the end, with the beautiful «Mosaic», which was by turns delicate and uplifting, the dynamics perfect, and Buchanan took his turn to improvise around the melody in the second verse.
We all took a breath, a moment to digest what we had heard. There was sustained applause, a cacophony of appreciation. It had been astounding; it had been a triumph. When the band launched into «Electric Man» next, the relief was palpable. They knew they had pulled it off, and they could let their hair down completely. This, and the final number «Keep on Swinging», seemed more relaxed, though they were still just as energetic, committed, powerful.
Slipping away into the damp Cambridge night, it was hard to believe it had been more than two hours of music. It had passed so quickly, and we had heard the new album complete and much of its earlier-born sister. We had been shown raw force from voice and guitar, power and drive from bass and drums, a full chorus of lush ensemble vocals, and some very progressive-sounding ambience from the keyboard, taking us into Pink Floyd territory at times. This was a performance of the highest quality, the result of first-rate musicianship, total commitment to the music, and I dare say a small dose of nervous excitement about putting out all of their new songs as a suite. With each album this band releases, they become stronger and more impressive, and this creative self-possession is transferring into their live performances, which had always been good. We will pass over in silence the odd fluffed note, an occasional forgotten lyric. We were privileged to be there and watch this unfold and share in this step – this moment of exchange – with the band. 5.5/6
Text: Alex Maines
Photography: Anne-Marie Forker
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